TikTok's becoming a TV platform. One pirated clip at a time

TikTok is emerging as an unlikely piracy platforms, as users cut up existing shows and movies into short enough chunks to fit on the app. And though they are unwieldy, incomplete and often from old productions, they're garnering hundreds of millions of views.  (TikTok - image credit)
TikTok is emerging as an unlikely piracy platforms, as users cut up existing shows and movies into short enough chunks to fit on the app. And though they are unwieldy, incomplete and often from old productions, they're garnering hundreds of millions of views. (TikTok - image credit)

It's late. Flipping through options, you spot Malcolm in the Middle is on — you might as well tune in. But instead you keep surfing, eventually landing on 7th Heaven, a family drama you've heard people talking about.

After a few more clicks of the controller in your hand though, you're surprised to see they're showing Catch Me If You Can. Feeling lucky, you decide to settle into the couch and watch.

While it sounds like a pretty average night in, there are a few odd things going on here. First is that it's all taking place not in 2003, but right here in 2023. Second is the 10-100 chunks these shows are being broken into, forcing you to hunt through comments and hints of where to find the next two-minute part. And third is that thing in your hand isn't a remote control — it's your phone.

"It's like a new form of piracy that you have out there and it's getting even wilder," said Shahbaz Siddiqui, co-host of the Movie Podcast. He was explaining the motivation that's driving millions to watch movies and shows on TikTok, ostensibly the least user-friendly app to do so. "There's a community there, they're leaving comments — it's like the silent version of talking during a movie."

Those millions of people are contributing to the billions of views on movies and films chopped up to fit the app's restrictive post limits, parcelled up and delivered to users in completely random order on its homepage.

As odd as it seems, it's a disruption of that industry with clear parallels to how the app similarly upended the music industry. There, it helped remove newness as a necessity for popularity — according to Billboard, TikTok's algorithm, which doesn't promote new songs over ones that released months or years before, caused older music to jump from 35 per cent of total music sales in 2014 to nearly 70 per cent in 2022.

And with movies and TV, it's leading to strange spikes in attention. Malcolm in the Middle is the most recent show to have undergone a seemingly random renaissance, as did The Good Doctor thanks to a clip of lead actor Freddie Highmore shouting "I am a surgeon."

As CBC News was the first to report on — users packaging existing media alongside videos of inane crafts established the trend of "sludge content" while propelling Family Guy into the stratosphere. And earlier this year, TV movie Temple Grandin had a moment in the sun that threatens to eclipse the critical success it had back in 2010.

It's formed a strange and pervasive enough phenomenon that even some taking part seem to be aware what they're doing isn't exactly normal.

"I am basically being shown this whole movie on TikTok," wrote a user about one clip, which had 3.6 million views. "I just need to go watch it for real now."

"The algorithm has found us; it knows what we like," said Movie Podcast co-host David Baptista. And TikTok's instant delivery, combined with an interactive peanut gallery to share compliments, criticisms and angered confusion, keeps people coming back. "It's giving me the best of what, hopefully, I like. And I'm going to stay there and watch it."

Newer shows fall victim as well. A single clip of 2022's horror/thriller Fall racked up 105 million views, while multiple accounts have posted large segments of the movie to similar numbers. Meanwhile, HBO's highly anticipated Clone High reboot leaked online in January, five months early, with a substantial amount of its views coming from TikTok.

And Baptista admits watching clips of Sony's hit, Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse on the app shortly after its release in theatres.

WATCH | What is TikTok's 'sludge content'?

It's a trend that Siddiqui and Baptista say is turning the video-sharing app into one of the pre-eminent mainstream piracy platforms. Because while apps like YouTube — which have copyright policies so strict and in favour of claimants that multiple users have called it broken — TikTok's algorithm-driven makeup has flown more or less under the radar.  

TikTok promotes the creation of original content  but, a spokeperson told CBC News, uploading existing intellectual property violates its terms of service. A number of digital tools detect copyrighted material and are being updated, while rights-holders can send takedown requests for any content posted without permission.

But the effectiveness of those efforts is up in the air. As of this story's publication, Fall, Clone High and Spider-Verse are all still available to watch on the app — while TikTok's role as a pseudo-streamer is only growing.

Toronto high schooler Daniel Primandono told CBC News he recently watched Top Gun on TikTok after a recommendation from his sister — choosing to watch on the app instead of a movie rental platform.

Twenty-year old Arshia Priajapati said she watches portions of TV shows on TikTok roughly two or three times a week, going through an entire episode in parts each time. And Jackson LeDoux, 14, said he'll often spend "hours" watching full-length movies on the app.

None could explain why they chose to use TikTok to watch, instead of moving on to a more convenient app.

'A symptom, not the disease'

Gordon Pennycook, a behavioural scientist at Cornell University, says the behaviour mirrors the direction of consumer habits in general. Though our attention spans are objectively no worse now than in the past, we've been trained to crave constant stimulation. Because of that, short clips are likely an easier and more immediately rewarding way to consume movies and TV — a trend that would have likely evolved with or without the app.

"TikTok is a symptom, not the disease," he said. "TikTok is a way that we allow ourselves to not feel boredom [and] to get constant entertainment. But if it wasn't TikTok, it'd be something else."

WATCH | How does Montana's TikTok ban work?: 

It also mirrors predictions far older than TikTok. In his 2000 book TV dot Com: The Future of Interactive Television Phillip Swann wrote that interactive features would "lead to fewer occasions where people sit down and watch a show from beginning to end without interruption."

"People will start watching TV shows the way they read books: a little at a time," he said.

While Swann was predicting, and worrying, TV would universally shrink down to no more than 30-minute chunks, it could prove to be a laughable concern in comparison to reality.

Neil Shyminsky, a pop culture authority, TikTok personality and English professor at Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ont., says there's more fear TV programming will get continually shorter the more success is determined by TikTok's algorithm.

The app's influence on the music industry has begun to affect what albums and artists gain popularity; often songs with small memorable sections that encourage dances, jokes or other interaction. The same could happen to movies and TV, though with a more drastic and obvious outcome as hours-long productions are made simply to showcase a few moments, themselves designed to be turned into minutes-long posts.

"What people in the field are calling the 'meme-ification of film,'" Shyminksy said of the latest trend.

That poses a problem.

"Because if we're building stories," he said, "if we're structuring narratives around meme-able moments, will they actually hold up as a story?"